Dominion Energy, which supplies part of the District’s electricity, recently took responsibility for a 13,000 gallon oil spill in the Potomac – but only after some detective work by the Coast Guard traced it to a Crystal City substation. Questions remain, though, about how the oil got into the water, and how Dominion policies might affect the District in the future.
The substation, at 18th and South Fern streets in Crystal City, is quite a distance from the water. A map supplied by WTOP seems to imply that the oil found its way to the river through a storm drain across the street from the substation, but is that realistic? The substation is in a residential area, and if 13,000 gallons of oil was pouring out of an electrical substation, wouldn’t someone have noticed? In the margins and comments sections of the internet, there have been mutterings that Dominion may have dumped the oil into the river intentionally. This sounds like baseless conspiracy theorizing, until you realize that Dominion has admitted to illegal dumping in Virginia before.
When Dominion sought to open a coal ash landfill in Chesterfield, VA, a sharp-eyed local reviewed the papers submitted with Dominion’s application and discovered that the company had been illegally importing and dumping out-of-town coal ash in the area for years. Dominion claimed that the dumping was a mere oversight, and stopped, though it’s unclear what sort of sanctions, if any, the local government took against the company. Of course, Dominion has also been in the headlines recently for winning permission to dump coal ash wastewater into the James and Potomac Rivers, over the objections of many locals, some of whom accused Dominion of being “domestic terrorists.” This all took place in a state, of course, in which Dominion has won wide-ranging influence via millions of dollars in political contributions. A University of Virginia professor, commenting on a Dominion deregulation bill that sped through the Virginia house last year, said that “no single company even comes close to Dominion in terms of its wide-ranging influence and impact on Virginia politics and government.” Isn’t it at least possible, in light of all this, that Dominion, feeling empowered in a lax regulatory environment – remember, it was a private citizen, not the government, who discovered their illegal dumping in Chesterfield – thought it could get away with discharging oil from its Crystal City substation into the Potomac? After all, they just won permission to dump something much more toxic into this same river, just a few hundred miles away. And the oil emerged onto the river in a protected waterfowl sanctuary – a pretty good choice of location if you’re doing something you want to keep away from prying eyes. (The advanced “tinfoil crown”-level conspiracy theory here is that the illegality of the spill stemmed from the fact that it found its way into the wildlife sanctuary – i.e. that it would’ve been perfectly kosher to dump that 13,000 gallons of mineral oil anywhere else in the Potomac.) Of course, there’s no hard evidence that it was an intentional dump but, taken together, these facts are suggestive.
Now that Dominion has taken responsibility for the spill, they may be on the hook for a fine up to $1.3 million. (In another example of an, ahem, forgiving regulatory environment, these fines are up for negotiation.) This is hardly punitive for a company that had revenues of over $15 billion last year. But whether it was an intentional dump or accidental spill, having a neighbor like Dominion could be dicey for the District, especially considering that the city’s banking so heavily on the Wharf mega-development. This “world-class waterfront,” set to come fully online this year, is almost directly across the Potomac from the oil spill. How enamored will tourists – or luxury condo residents – be if they head to the boardwalk and find dead geese floating on an oil-slicked Potomac? With so much in the works for DC’s rivers, maybe it’s time to forge a firmer understanding with our neighbors in Virginia about what is and isn’t acceptable in our shared waterways.